These days, everyone seems to agree that augmented, virtual, and mixed reality technology is going to change everything. From retail to science and even entertainment, these new systems are going to fundamentally change how we interact with reality and each other. The amazing truth is that we can already see the seeds of this change taking root today, and it can help us predict where AR/VR/MR might take us.
Most people don’t realise that the very first attempt at virtual reality was patented in 1962! More than fifty years ago, Morton Heilig designed a machine he called the “Sensorama”, and though it may seem laughably crude and quintessentially 1950s now, what it tried to achieve is still the goal of modern VR.
Heilig sought to create an “Experience Theater”
Both AR and VR seek to immerse the user in a different reality, one that they can control or that gives them access to new information. Not that long ago, another technology emerged and brought us access to new information that transformed our lives. When the Internet began as Arpanet, few people envisioned what it would become.
Like the Internet, virtual and augmented reality promise to bring seismic changes that affect every aspect of our lives. We can even use the Internet as a road map to predict the form some of these changes might take.
Retail and Real Estate
Online shopping offers customers the chance to look at pictures of products and order them without having to leave home. At it’s most basic, that’s all it is: a picture and an order form. This simple formula has resulted in trillions being spent online. What’s going to happen when customers can not only see a picture of a product, but also virtually experience it instead?
Retailers like IKEA are already looking to add augmented reality to their catalogues that can show customers how a chair might look in their living room. Virtual reality could show them how their entire house would look with new furniture. Or new floors. Or a new kitchen.
Or a new house altogether. Online real estate relies on the same basic principle as online retail. Customers can see a photograph and a blurb. In some cases, they might get a video tour of a property.
Imagine being to walk through that same property without putting on shoes. That’s what technology like the Matterport Camera offers. The Matterport scans interiors and then creates a 3D computer model of that space which can then be explored in VR.
3D model created by scanning rooms with the Matterport Camera.
It’s not difficult to imagine such technology becoming indispensable to realtors in an increasingly competitive industry.
Education and Training
It’s long been held that the best way to learn something is to do it. This is great advice when the thing in question is possible, safe, and not prohibitively expensive.
When the US military needs to train its personnel on how to navigate dangerous situations, like a civilian protest in Baghdad, for example, they hire actors, build structures to simulate the environment, and even hire make-up artists to create realistic wounds. There’s arguably no better training, but it costs millions.
US Army training simulation with actors portraying civilians.
The military has been using flight simulators for decades, and given the sheer number of video games based on military situations, it’s not hard to imagine the short leap to creating VR or AR based simulations to recreate any possible scenario soldiers might encounter on deployments.
Similarly, education, which now uses the Internet to show students parts of the world they might never see, offers a way to let them be immersed in other cultures, scenes from history, or visions of the future. VR and AR would also allow students to visualise difficult mathematical concepts to aid learning. Imagine what a 3D geometry lesson might look like with students exploring abstract concepts as they unfold before their eyes.
Engineering and Design
This ability to visualise in real time is already being applied to engineering and design. Jaguar Motor’s CAVE system is a multi-million dollar visualisation tool that lets designers and engineers see a car’s engine from the inside, helping them build better and more efficient vehicles without costly prototypes.
3D CAD models are already the standard tool when it comes to industrial and product design. The next and obvious step is to combine these models with AR/VR/MR technology that allows designers to see and improve their designs as they create them. Combined with rapid prototyping and 3D printers, engineering could see huge advancements in the coming years.
Like the Arpanet and the Sensorama, our current attempts at virtual and augmented reality will likely seem simple and crude in the very near future. But like those quaint technologies, they will have laid the groundwork for a future that is almost beyond our ability to imagine. Only one thing is for certain; when we do look back on this time, we will be able to experience it in startling detail.
By James Whitebread,